Friends from Tampa to South Beach mourn drag queen

Published May 30, 2013

TAMPA — Anthony Jerome Lee, fatally shot Tuesday in East Tampa, was better known as "Wanda," a balloon-breasted drag queen famous for her Whitney Houston impersonations and penchant for being, well, a bit of a jerk.

She was big in South Beach in the '90s, where she had a regular Sunday performance at the now-closed club Amnesia. The crowd loved her show-stopping entrances, like the time she wore a dress made of tampons and jumped into a pool.

Wanda's "bad girl" reputation got her banned from many clubs, but she kept working, traveling the nation by bus and train, her long-sleeved, high-necked gowns neatly packed in dress bags.

Recently, though, Tampa was home. That is where Wanda, 44, was Tuesday evening, cooking dinner for a friend, when she heard a knock. Wanda answered the door to a gunman, who shot her five times, friends say.

Police have not named any suspects.

On Wednesday, the drag community, from Tampa to South Beach, Atlanta to Chicago, mourned a diva who may have had a prickly personality but was a loyal companion to those who weren't too scared to try.

What made her so good on stage was her comedy, said Kurt King, owner of Hamburger Mary's in Ybor City, where the striking 6-foot-6 Wanda used to host a talent night on Thursdays.

She would lip-synch Whitney Houston and put white powder on her nose, pretending to have recently snorted cocaine.

She wore wigs and gowns and exasperated friends by always blasting Houston's The Greatest Hits while putting on makeup.

She loved designer purses and kept receipts to prove they weren't fake.

Yet friends say Wanda, a rolling stone, never had a place of her own. She traveled so much and stayed with godmothers, godsisters, godbrothers. ("She had more god in her family than family," said friend Dale Wilson.)

Wilson, better known as Power Infiniti on stage, remembers meeting Wanda 17 years ago.

Wilson was new to the drag scene and was walking down Washington Avenue in South Beach when he passed Wanda, who was out of drag at that point.

Wanda started laughing — just laughing — at Wilson.

"She thought I looked a mess," Wilson recalled. "And, yeah, I had just started, so I probably did look a hot mess. But when a drag queen starts out, you can't tell her she doesn't look fabulous."

As Wilson got to know Wanda more, their sharp-tongued personalities somehow meshed. They became close friends.

Wanda was outgoing and crazy, but she also had a loyal streak, said her friend, Lazaro Leon, known as Adrenalyn Demornay. They worked together at Valentine's Nightclub near West Tampa several years ago.

"She was always crazy, but she was also very caring and there for you when you needed her," he said.

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She could also cut down people and had no patience for misbehavior — or anyone who popped her giant balloon breasts.

"Wanda can be a certified b---- with a capital B," said her longtime friend, Henry Williams, also known as South Beach drag queen Tiffany Fantasia. "She was one of those people who could give you no fakeness, no phoniness. You got the real deal. She was a tough cookie, but once you got to know her, you fell in love with her."

He described Wanda as a mentor and inspiration — and as "the only person I know banned from practically every club in South Beach and coming back like nothing had happened."

"She would always get into a fight. I remember one time she was at Twist. I don't remember the details, but it involved a Bud Light and a bottle going over somebody's head," he said.

"Security walked her out. The next thing, security was on the floor and she got up and walked away, her wig in her hand."

Twice in the late '90s, clubs tried joining together to ban Wanda, hoping she would just go away. She didn't.

Wanda grew up in East Tampa. Over the years, she racked up a Florida arrest record, mainly for bad checks, but was charged with aggravated assault in 1993.

And though she had achieved fame in South Beach, she always seemed to return to her hometown. She could often be found hanging out at Wilson Funeral Home, where she used to work but now simply helped.

There, she dressed as Anthony, was referred to as a male and known by the nickname "Foots," likely earned because he was lanky and had large feet.

He was just there a couple of hours before his death, said funeral home manager and friend Wayne L. Bright.

"He was just hanging around, joking," Bright said. "I told him he missed his calling. He should have been a standup comedian, he was so funny."

Anthony Lee leaves three sisters and four brothers — "a family that loved him," said sister Barbara Lee-Thomas.

A funeral is still in the works, though Bright said he assumes Wilson Funeral Home will handle it. Hamburger Mary's will hold a fundraiser to pay for funeral costs. It will be June 6, on talent night.

Miami Herald staff writer Steve Rothaus and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.